We don't yet know how many people, or how many Americans (soldiers or civilians), have been killed or injured in what appears to have been a complex suicide attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday. But one thing we can know with certainty: It doesn't bode well for Joe Biden's presidency.
The case for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan is strong. The rapid collapse of Afghan military forces and its elected government in the face of a Taliban offensive this summer has demonstrated just how little we've done to create a strong and resilient system in the country over the past 20 years. Add in the deal the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban for American withdrawal, and Biden was left with the prospect of following through or reneging on it and facing the prospect of a Taliban escalation that required a new American troop surge. Biden personally opposed any such surge, and American public opinion was firmly against it.
But that doesn't mean voters have been happy with scenes coming out of Afghanistan over the past two weeks. It's one thing to favor a withdrawal of troops. It's quite another to be faced with images of victorious members of the Taliban celebrating their triumph over the United States — or of thousands clamoring to flee the country in a chaotic and dangerous scramble at the Kabul airport. It's those images, along with a torrent of sharply critical press coverage of the administration's managing of the withdrawal on the ground, that accounts for most of Biden's precipitous drop in the polls over the past month.
And that was before Thursday's bombings.
In addition to uncertainty surrounding the number of casualties, we also don't yet know who was behind the attack — a faction of the Taliban? Al Qaeda? The Afghan-based "Khorasan" branch of ISIS? Whichever group turns out to have been responsible, the consequences are bound to be bad for Joe Biden in political terms.
America looks weak, confused, on the defensive. The entirety of the national security establishment, including leading members of the military, had already turned on the administration. Our allies have been apoplectic and haven't been shy about sharing their anger and dismay with journalists, many of whom are equally furious about colleagues in Afghanistan facing a dismal future. All of this will now get worse. Much worse, as political friends and enemies at home and abroad seek to distance themselves from and gain advantage in attacking a wounded president.
In political terms, the bipartisan character of the criticism is decisive. In our time of extreme polarization, we've grown used to members of the president's party rallying to his side in times of political turbulence. But that's not what we've seen over the past few weeks, when plenty of Democrats on Capitol Hill have joined with scores of Republicans in speaking out against the way Biden and his team have handled events in Afghanistan. That will only intensify now, as Democrats begin running for cover, aiming to protect themselves from the political fallout.
Then there's the future course of the evacuation process. More than a thousand Americans and many times that many Afghans who assisted us in the country still await removal. Will we be able to bring them safely to the United States over the next few days? Or will additional terrorist attacks — or the threat of such attacks — prevent it, necessitating leaving them behind? And how will that be treated by Biden's lengthening list of political opponents and rivals, who already smell blood in the water?
The president had already locked himself in to several weeks of Afghanistan-focused coverage. That was the risk of him tying our withdrawal to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. What was always going to be a mid-September media frenzy of remembrances tied to that horrific day will now invariably treat it as a story with bookends: the worst civilian attack in American history leading two decades later to a frenzied pullback under enemy fire.
None of this is going to be good for Biden, whose aggregate approval rating will almost certainly be languishing below 45 percent by the time those 9/11 commemorations come to an end. Can a president that weak nonetheless manage to maneuver his ambitious domestic agenda through a narrowly divided Congress? Biden had better hope so, because what would be guaranteed to turn the polling low from a temporary, news-driven soft spot into a new normal is that agenda running aground, leaving the administration without a major accomplishment to run on as the country heads into the midterm elections of 2022.
Was withdrawal the right move? Did the Biden administration bungle the exit? What should come next for America in Afghanistan and the region? We will have plenty of time to argue about how to answer such questions. But the politics of the situation already seem quite clear: Just seven months into his presidency, Joe Biden has gotten himself into serious trouble.